Wednesday, November 30, 2005
But, recently, our college newsletter requested one from me (or was going to use an awful file photograph) and gave me a deadline of November 26. Monday morning I shot out of bed--I had totally forgotten about the photograph.
What to do? My husband had already left for campus, so I was alone.
Then I remembered a childhood trick: the self portrait. We'd sneak a cheap Brownie out of the house and take pictures of ourselves. They were awful, of course, and we had no way of checking our results until we picked up the prints from the drug store, but we had a blast.
So I thought, I can do this!
A snap with the digital camera.
With grim determination--no joy here--I set about taking my picture. My attempts were awful; I looked tightlipped, saggy, pale, and stiff.
Then I decided to take my show outside, where the natural light might give me a fighting chance at looking somewhat normal.
Finally, lucky shot #13, and...
Mind you, I'm no great beauty--never have been, never will be--but I'm happy with the resulting photograph. Besides, physical beauty is vastly overrated, but that's another issue for another entry.
Here I am, bright red hair and all!
Jennifer Semple Siegel
Saturday, November 26, 2005
As I wrote, I realized that I was writing for myself as well as others; so I decided to post my e-mail to her here:
I'm fairly new, too, to this group. I think that the most important thing in the world is NOT to beat yourself up if you gain a few pounds while you sort things out for yourself. It takes time, and many of us here are still working things out for ourselves. Count the small victories, and rejoice in them.
For two days (Thanksgiving and Friday), I ate more than I usually do (or at least I have been eating in the past four months), and I'm quite okay with it. The important thing (for me, anyway), I didn't stuff myself, but I enjoyed pie, cake, Mike's Hard Lime (a fave), mashed potatoes, among other so-called forbidden food. I did NOT go "out of control," my worst fear, and, today, I feel just fine and have picked up eating normally. I refuse to "cut back" to "make up" for two days of heavier eating, even though I might gain some weight. But I won't know "the numbers" because I have given up the scale. Instead, I go by what my clothes tell me, and they don't lie. Leaving the scale behind has freed me tremendously, and I only know "the number" when I go to the doctor's office.
All I'm trying to say: we all find our way to cope, and, for me, the scale is an impediment to my psychological health because the numbers get in the way, and I obsess over them. Am I tempted to weigh? Of course. Every day.
I'm not a thin person, though I have decided to ACT like one, and the consequence of that role playing? At this point, I'm not sure. In any case, I FEEL better, both physically and psychologically. Will I ever slip? Probably. But I'm not going to allow my slips to turn into year-long downward spirals into overeating and bingeing.
You WILL find what works for you--just listen to what your body really needs and, yes, wants. Most diets are so grim, focusing on the shall-nots instead of the shalls, and if you feel you must embrace WW and/or OA, then take what YOU need and want from them, and leave the rest behind--it's your body. And if you "slip" off your own plan and violate your own intentions, try not be so hard on yourself. It's not a moral failing.
You (and anyone else) are welcome to visit my blog.
I'm not selling anything, just keeping a log of my journey. I plan to post this note on my blog, just to remind myself of my own words when I'm feeling down and out.
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Years ago, the writer Maxine Hong Kingston lost an entire manuscript in those California wildfires that wiped out thousands of homes, and she had no backup
copy. Understandably, she sunk into a deep depression, but managed to write a
different book in which she explored the loss of several years work. At the 2003
NCTE meeting in San Francisco, she spoke very poignantly about this traumatic
event. The minute I returned home, I decided to protect my work, even at the
possibility of risking spider bots crawling my work.
Life IS about taking risks; diet programs attempt to erase all risk from their clients' lives. Non-dieting involves taking risks, and that's a positive thing, for how else can we discover what works for us? I ordered Linda Moran's book How to Survive Your Diet and Conquer Your Food Issues Forever, and some other non-dieting books--I firmly believe in educating myself as much as possible. I like Linda Moran's online group (dietsurvivors); it's simple to navigate, and she responds to the messages, even the ones not directed to her. Where does she find the time? I also ordered Teacher Man (Frank McCourt) and Hungry Planet (Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio), not a book directly about diet as weight loss, but diet as how people around the world eat. I heard about the book on NPR and knew instantly that I needed it.
Anyway, tomorrow is Turkey Day, and I wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving. In the past, this has always been a red flag day, just another food trap to navigate. This year will be different; I'm going to take Linda Moran's advice and enjoy small portions of the foods I really like. I think I can do it; I survived two conferences pretty well: I ate steak, crab cakes, turkey and mashed potatoes with gravy, rolls, and sweets. But I drew a line and ate limited amounts and, surprisingly, I felt satisfied. Not "buffet" stuffed--an awful feeling, by the way.
I learned something important; at one meal, I thought I had done fairly well, but 30 minutes later, I realized I had, in fact, overeaten.
Trial and error: that's how we learn.
I have discovered a simple way of determining true hunger and "mouth" hunger: with true hunger, no matter how much you try to forget about it, it sticks with you until you nourish your body. Mouth hunger, on the other hand, can be short circuited by engaging in another activity. Sometimes, though, mouth hunger has to be nourished as well--naturally thin people do engage in feeding mouth hunger, but they do so without guilt and guile.
Back to Thanksgiving. Last year, I was living in Skopje, Macedonia, and there was not a turkey to be had at any cost. So I bought two oven-spit chickens, noodles, cabbage, carrots, chocolate truffles--foods easily found in Macedonia--and invited some Macedonian friends over for Thanksgiving dinner. They loved celebrating an American holiday, and I loved explaining the meaning of the holiday (including the tradition of gorging and watching American Football). This year, we're going to my brother-in-law's for the traditional feast, which will be nice, too. Mark and Missy Siegel are thin people who diet from time to time, but they don't make a big deal out of it.
I love them for that!
Have a great day!
Jennifer Semple Siegel
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
"Are you thin yet?"
My entire childhood revolved around "becoming" thin, a state of body reached only for short spurts, before "becoming" fat again. It seemed I was in a constant state of weight--yes, the play on words is intentional. My entire childhood was about weight and wait. Hell, most of my adulthood.
Back in August, an epiphany, perhaps a re-epiphany. Perhaps this time it will take root.
I just joined a Yahoo Health group called dietsurvivors: Non-dieting for intellectuals. Looks fantastic, and, so far, everyone has been very friendly and supportive. Link:
Linda Moran, the owner of the group, has posted "How Children Eat," an excerpt from her book How to Survive Your Diet and Conquer Your Food Issues Forever in which she discusses how normal vs. overweight children relate to food.
What an eye opener!
I was the kid who hid sunflower seeds underneath the mattress and Twin Bings and peanut butter cups in my underwear drawer, while my skinny friends and cousins ate freely and openly. I don't remember the first time food became taboo--it just always was.
One late night, in early 1991, I couldn't sleep--something was on my mind, but I didn't know what. So I dragged myself out of bed and started to write.
By dawn, the following had poured from my pen:
"Are you thin yet?"
Those words, arriving one day--cloaked in a birthday card and sizable check from a great aunt in California--will remain forever grooved in my mind.
So will the words that followed: "I hope so because, if not, you'll have to spend your birthday money on fat clothes, and we know how ugly they are. And you have such a pretty face."
Happy thirteenth birthday.
I'll never forget the pain from that cruel and cutting message, perceiving, somehow, that love and acceptance were doled out according to how close I could get to my ideal body weight, that fat was a sacrilege, a dirty family secret to be eradicated like a communicable disease, even if it meant sacrificing a little girl's self-esteem.
At thirteen, I was a shell-shocked veteran of the diet wars, having already embarked on reducing regimens, ranging from the downright fad diets ("eat sugar and lettuce for every meal for one week") to the downright dangerous (amphetamines prescribed by my family doctor who himself weighed in at a whopping 300 pounds).
So I was an expert in attack strategies required for tackling those extra pounds, having begun several years before the vicious cycle of food deprivation, weight loss, bingeing, weight gain, guilt, more food deprivation, more weight loss, more bingeing, more weight gain, more guilt, a cycle that has stalked me throughout my adulthood.
I started picking up unwanted pounds when I was eight. At first, my family teased me about being "pleasingly plump" and "a whole lot to love." Yet, as I look back on old pictures, I wasn't overly obese; perhaps I was simply going through a stage where my height hadn't yet caught up with my weight.
I'll never know, however, because my family would not accept me as I was, and (with the best of intentions, I'm sure) started me on my diet merry-go-round.
First they tried "scare tactics": "If you eat those potato chips, we'll need a derrick to get you to school." Then it was "let's-hide-the-food-from-the-kid-and-maybe-she-won't-notice" approach.
I noticed all right and took steps to compensate by raiding my piggy bank and sneaking down to the corner grocery store for Reese's Peanut Butter cups; I could always depend upon my good friend chocolate to fill that empty spot in my stomach. Once, when I was home alone, desperate to fill that void with something warm and soothing and yet too frightened of fire to light the pilot light on the stove, I heated Campbell's Chicken Noodle soup in the electric percolator.
So by the time I had received the fateful birthday message, I was still not thin,
even though my family and doctor had tried just about everything, including
thyroid pills, even though my thyroid was (and still is) perfectly normal.
By now, the verdict from my family, peers, and media was obvious: I was not okay. I was fat; therefore, I was stupid, oafish, somehow sub-human, unfit to play with "normal" children. And they let me know about it, too, calling me "Fatso," "Heifer," "Fatty-fatty, two-by-four, couldn't-get-through-the bathroom-door."
I hated myself, and, even though I was raised in a staunch Catholic family, I once considered selling my soul to the devil "if only I could eat all the peanut butter cups in the world and still lose weight." Instead, with my immortal soul intact and my self-esteem shot to hell, I began, in earnest, my self-imposed cycle of food deprivation, etc.
By high school, I was still not thin, but my regimen now included days of total fasting, followed by sheer bouts of gluttony. I was completely out-of-control, and, except for periods of self-imposed exile into "Dietland," remained out-of-control on into adulthood.
In 1986, I embarked on my last regimented diet, a grueling journey through the Optifast Program, certainly the hair shirt, the sack cloth and ashes of all programs, The Ultimate Food Deprivation Diet, the Just Punishment for the Fat, my last crack at formal self-flagellation: for twelve weeks I ate no solid food, limited to drinking 70 calorie milk shakes six times a day. During that three months, I became totally obsessed with food; I counted the days when I could finally put one bite of poached chicken breast into my mouth; I had sexual dreams about food, bacchanalian banquets where the line between good taste and raunchy sex blurred; my senses sharpened, my eyes grew gaunt, my temperament developed a steely edge.
So was I thin yet?
Of course not, because the minute I stuck that first bite of real food into my mouth, I was fat again, no matter what the scale told me. In a matter of weeks, I was fat again, simply reinforcing what my head had known for years.
I finally gave into my old enemy food, eating whatever I wanted, feeling guilty after every bite and every binge, hating myself more and more. I was mired in a four year feeding frenzy.
August, 1990: I found myself facing 40--and still not thin yet. For the first time in my life, I actually considered suicide; however fleeting the thought might have been, the possibility was frightening enough to send me scurrying for professional help. I know this revelation will shock my loved ones, including my husband, but I have to tell my story like it is.
Two months later, after receiving some excellent psychotherapy in conjunction with a workshop on overcoming food obsession, I'm finally coming to terms with my
love/hate relationship with food. Most importantly, I'm discovering that I need to learn how to love and accept myself--no matter what my weight is and no matter what others (including my family) think about me--unconditionally and without reservation. I'm not quite there yet, but for the first time in my life, I feel hope, real hope.
Sometime in late September--I'm not exactly sure why or how--I made a decision to toss away all the diet baggage I've been carrying around for all these years. Now I ignore all the diet gurus and their snake oil remedies and have vowed to get on with the rest of my life.
Also, I have given myself unconditional permission to enjoy the foods I love, in whatever quantities I desire, and whenever I want--guilt-free. Moreover, I have called a moratorium on foods I never really liked in the first place but felt I had to eat because they were "thin" foods for "unthin" people.
In essence, I have thrown out all the old diet rules. After all, generally speaking, people who are naturally slender and have a positive self-image don't put themselves through a lifetime of agony over food. And, now, neither will I.
Am I thin yet? No, but, hey, I'm a heck of a lot happier now than at any other point in my life. Even at slightly under 200 pounds, I am able to look at myself in the mirror and see someone I could genuinely like--even love.
Will I ever be thin? I honestly don't know. I do know that ever since I have purged myself of useless guilt, I have not binged. I'm not sure what significance this has in the long term, but I now realize that my future success must be measured in the way I feel about myself, not by the scale or public consensus.
"Are You Thin Yet?," copyright 1993 Jennifer Semple Siegel, originally published in Eating Our Hearts Out: Personal Accounts of Women's Relationship to Food, edited by Leslea Newman, The Crossing Press (1993).
This small essay earned me a positive mention in a review on Amazon.com and a footnote in an academic study on (surprise!) girls and weight issues. But my own words didn't take root. They were the right words--they bounced from my lips, looping out into the void.
A few months later, I expanded the essay, published here for the first time:
My journey into self-acceptance is still an ongoing process: some days, I feel pretty good about myself, others, the old self-hatred comes through, especially when I still see so much prejudice leveled against overweight people. For example, I just recently found out that in Pennsylvania, there is no law protecting overweight people from job discrimination. Quite simply, a person can be cut out of the job market solely on the basis of weight. I felt so angry at that revelation, and yet, in many ways, I feel powerless to effect any change. Perhaps lawmakers believe that overweight people can diet, lose weight, and keep it off. But the fact is, only 5% of dieters keep their lost weight off for two years or more. Consequently, I'm going to have to wage my war via pen and paper, perhaps forcing those people fortunate enough to be blessed with the "thin privilege" to walk in my shoes for a short time.
Why haven't more overweight people spoken out? I can venture some guesses, based on my own experiences as an overweight person: As a general rule, these people
--possess low self-esteem
--tend to agree with public consensus that being overweight is not okay, that those who carry extra pounds are stupid somehow.
--tend to be ashamed to appear in public because of weight
Last semester, I had an opportunity to speak out against "weightism" (I believe that is the new term these days), and I blew it: I remained mute as a Clinical Psychologist, the instructor in my psychology course, went into a tirade about alcoholics, drug addicts, and overweight people not taking responsibility for their own actions. He then said, "Take overweight people, for example: to lose weight, all they have to do is close their mouths. It's so simple." I could feel myself choking on my anger; the words were there, but they were piling upon one another, stuck on my tongue. After all, I was sitting in a college course, not a therapy group. Also, my fellow students, for the most part, were 19 and 20 year olds, probably one of the most unsympathetic segments in society toward anyone who is different. And believe me, many overweight people go to great lengths not to call unwanted attention to themselves.
So what would I say to Dr. Arrogance now that I'm in front of the keyboard, fairly safe from the judging eyes of post-adolescents?
First, I would tell him that if weight reduction were such a simple process, there would be very few overweight people in the world--that sometimes people feel that the price of being thin is not worth the energy, the deprivation, and the pain. Sometimes, the choice is conscious, sometimes unconscious. Nonetheless, it's an option that should be accepted and respected--not severely judged by others who have little knowledge of the implications of being overweight.
Second, I would let him know that being overweight is not a sign of inner weakness, for many overweight people go on to lead successful lives.
Third, I would tell him that his standard of what is normal is out of whack--that I'm as normal as anyone else, except that I carry extra weight. Big deal. That I desire the same things he desires: love, success, esteem, self-actualization. That I care for my body and appearance, try to eat healthy foods, and take time out for recreation and leisure. And I hurt when other people view me as something as subhuman because of what I weigh, just as Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities hurt when people judge them solely on the color of their skin.
Fourth, I would call into question his ability to do psychotherapy on overweight people who might seek help in trying to find out what makes them overeat. I doubt very much if he could offer them much insight because he has little understanding of the pain that many overweight people experience when they contemplate putting a piece of "forbidden food" into their mouths.
The last thing an overweight person needs is a misguided shot of shock therapy.
I can only try to explain the mechanics of what happens before, during, and after a binge, although mere words cannot begin to explain the torment a person feels when he/she is locked in a struggle with two opposing desires: to eat (= gaining weight) or not to eat (= losing or maintaining weight).
In my case, I feel any guilt associated with food the strongest when I'm supposed to be on a diet, at least consciously. However, when I'm not dieting, the guilt is still there, but I can stuff it away--with more food. Generally, during the morning and early afternoon, I seem to do okay. Late afternoons and early evenings are a different matter, and the subsequent urge to binge usually begins as a small, nagging nudge from the id, such as,
"I'm really in the mood for_______________."
At first, the thought is just that, one not to be taken too seriously--at least yet. Sometimes I can slough it off and go onto to other things in my life. Most of the time, I cannot. Then the thought begins to grow into an urge, and I begin to feel anxious. This is the warning bell that I'm about to overeat, and that I had better do something, perhaps examine something in my life or leave the house, because once the urge becomes an obsession, I cannot seem to stop it, for now, I'm beyond anxious: I'm terrified that if I don't eat, something awful will happen. On a conscious level, I know that my fears are irrational, but I'm helpless now, far beyond rational thinking. The fear just continues to grow until something "clicks" in my head, and another Jennifer, a ravenous alterego, stumbles into the kitchen and consumes whatever is there, with little regard for what it is. I usually choose soft, starchy foods, such as a mound of mashed potatoes, smothered in margarine--anything quickly consumable. I eat fast, cramming food down as fast as I can, until I'm so stuffed that I can barely move. It is then, only then, that the feeling of peace comes over me. I would compare the feeling to a marijuana high in that I get a feeling of floating and forgetfulness. The guilt comes later, the sense that what I have just done is an irrational, self-destructive act. Then the belief that I'm nothing but a weak-willed pig begins to play over and over in my head. Now the recriminations and self-hatred begin. I might even look at myself in the mirror, and scold my bloated image, "How could you do this to yourself?"
Thus, overeating becomes a moral issue as opposed to a biological one in which the result is added weight. Now I have begun a vicious cycle which may last for months.
The above is much easier (though still painful) to write about because I do not binge as much as I used to. Yes, I still carry the extra weight, but my self-concept has improved. Also, I have learned strategies which help me to head off binges before they get out of hand, such as indulging in the "I'm in the mood for______________" urge. If I'm satisfied with my choice, I have discovered that getting a nip of the "virus" actually helps to inoculate myself from the big time binges. There are numerous other strategies as well.
Still, one does not break long-standing habits overnight, so when people suggest simplistic solutions, I have this urge to reach up and squeeze their faces because they just don't have any clue what it is like to live my life. However, sooner or later, I'm faced with the fact that I can't change other people's attitudes, and that perhaps my best strategy is to change the way I feel about myself.
And, no, I am not thin yet.
From the distance of thirteen years, the addendum seems more honest than the published part, which is why I include it here.
I truly thought I had conquered this food thing, but I now know that complete success will probably prove to be somewhat elusive, that victories will be small, and occasional backsliding likely.
Day-to-day, I fear.
Today is the forty-second anniversary of JFK's assassination--a horrifying and sad day in history.
Jennifer Semple Siegel
Monday, November 21, 2005
My Introduction to Literature class was a terrific surprise. My students are reading Sylvia Plath's Three Women, not an easy play/poem for college freshmen to digest. Plath's language is a bit dense and metaphorical, though the subject--birth, bleeding, and death--is very universal.
The students met in groups, and I circulated among the groups to get a sense of what they understood; I filled in any gaps that they might have had. Surprisingly, they already understood the complexities of the play/poem, although they complained about the difficulty of the piece. Plath's play/poem consists of three alternating female voices, dealing with different aspects of pregnancy. I asked two groups to write a poetic response from the perspective of the speaker's significant other.
After meeting with the groups, I took a few minutes and wrote a poetic response as well. (Sometimes, I like to to write along with my classes; after all, if I assign it, I should be willing to do it, too!)
After class, I e-mailed the class the following:
Thanks to everyone who was able to attend today's
class; I know it's difficult to concentrate before a holiday, but you all did a good job with Sylvia Plath's very difficult poem/play Three Women. I thought maybe you'd like to see the poems of Group 2, 4, and 6 (me!), which are from the perspective of the three voices' significant others.
First Voice (Husband):
You can finally rest, my dear
We have a healthy baby boy
You can stop worrying
He has all ten fingers, and all
ten toes, and big beautiful blue eyes.
It was a rough start but
Through much pain and
determination our baby's life was saved.
He will grow to love us more and more each day.
He is perfect in every single way.
by Group #2
Second Voice (Husband):
I look at your red lips, and I know
how much I love you. The blue, autumn
sky is brisk and chilly, but I
do not see you as barren. Children
arrive in many flavors, and not all
children are fruits of the womb.
I see how you yearn for your own flesh,
but it is not flesh that determines
a parent. The sweet wine of a baby's
breath is the same in all babies,
and it matters not if our sons and
daughters push through your canal
or another's. It matters only that
we pick our children before they are ripe--
That way, they will be ours.
The sun pushes through the winter
clouds, and Forsythia blooms,
a blast of yellow petals.
Spring. Our children will be borne.
by Group #6 (Ms. Siegel)
Third Voice (Ex-boyfriend):
You kept me in the dark
She was part of me too
I could've helped you
together we could've been a family
You don't understand how guilty I feel
Never having known your pain or your sorrow
Imagine my shock when I found out why you left
How could you make such a big decision without me?
Did you feel I wouldn't understand?
How could it be so easy to give away our flesh & blood?
Now our daughter lays in the arms of strangers
We will never know her Who will she become?
I wonder who she looks like
Does she have my eyes?
Will she be a teacher, a doctor, a business woman?
These will be questions I will always ask myself
We should've talked about this
This wasn't only your decision
But obviously it's too late.
by Group #4
Have a great holiday!
Some teachers might view a survey course as a sort of "throwaway" elective, but I love teaching this class and take the job very seriously--I love these "aha" moments.
Isn't it funny, though, that I speak of knowledge as being "digested"?
Food for the soul, as well as the mind?
I'd love to hear from other teachers.
Jennifer Semple Siegel
Thursday, November 17, 2005
"I have always felt like a thin person in a fat body?"
If only we could chisel our bodies the way we want; whenever we gained weight, we could trot out our trusty tool and simply carve away the problem areas. Lipo, I suppose, offers this as a limited option.
Unfortunately, I would need to cut away about one-third of my body. Not an option.
I have never felt like a thin person, even when I was thin--I was always a fat person, on the verge of bursting out of a tight skin.
And I did burst out, albeit slowly and methodically. Gaining weight actually takes longer to accomplish than losing it; if you don't believe me, go back and figure out how long it took you to lose that 50 pounds. Six months? A year? Then count the years it took to pile it back on--in my case, two and even three years. Gaining just seems faster. The old yo-yo syndrome.
Now I'm about to embark on a marathon, to go into training as a thin person, never mind what the mirror says.
I'm doing this...why?
In about a year or two or three or four, I plan to be thin, at least thinner--if I can permanently incorporate hara hachi bu into my life, a lower body weight will be an inevitable offshoot. I'll never be bone-jutting thin, nor would I want to be. I could never find comfort in a body like that.
I'm taking it slow; if I follow hara hachi bu today, then that's a major victory, tomorrow, yet another victory. If I ever backslide, then that's life, and I'm not going to beat myself up over it, nor will I ever allow other people to dictate how I feel about my body.
So, as of today, November 17, 2005, I am an artificial thin person, in training for the real deal, fully recognizing that my run will not always follow a linear road, but sometimes a looping, often backtracking, foot-dragging shuffle.
Jennifer Semple Siegel
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
The authors offer some good suggestions for losing weight and keeping it off, but I was generally unimpressed until I hit the lottery ticket bookmark on page 138, and there it was, the answer I had been seeking (only I didn't know what I had been seeking until I actually saw it in print):
"List your ten favorite foods."
Then the authors had the cheek to suggest that I might actually be able to incorporate these foods into my diet, albeit on a limited basis. That what I choose to put into my body should be dictated by my preferences, not some one-size-fits-all diet program.
I was transported back to 1973, when I first embarked on a commercial weight loss program, Weight Watchers, actually. The modern WW version has come a long way in that choices are varied and that non-dieters could benefit from incorporating some of their suggestions into their ordinary lives, but, WOO! Those early days were draconian, indeed, filled with dictums and thou-shall-nots. Briefly,
1. You had to eat liver once a week, even if you despised it. To skip this instruction was tantamount to committing an unforgivable mortal sin, and the Weight Watchers' lecturer would certainly see right through your lie when she asked, "Did you eat your liver this week?" and you answered with a weak "yes."
2. You had to eat a lot of protein (at least 10 ounces a day) and little starch, a lousy rule to hand to someone who, just the week before, had fixed up an entire box of instant mashed potatoes, drizzled with a stick of melted butter, and ate until she could no longer move.
3. No dessert, except their commercial version of "ice milk," some awful, crystallized concoction, two flavors: vanilla and chocolate.
4. Only green leafy vegetables were allowed, and they had to be weighed precisely--to eat one leaf past the prescribed one cup would surely result in a five-pound weight gain for that week.
5. You had to eat three servings of fish per week--without fail. Fish, in those days, was pretty pathetic; it could usually be purchased in frozen oblongs or in cans. Fresh fish was a rarity and expensive. And even if I could have afforded fresh fish, I had no idea how to cook it as a tasty, low-fat dish. I had grown up in Iowa, where, long ago, fish had lost their fins, gained a coat of breading, and then "swam" in the deep-fryer.
6. Your three teaspoons of fat had to be spread on something, not to be used in cooking. Once, a member asked the lecturer if she could use "Pam," a then-new cooking spray, and the lecturer said, "Pam is a girl's name, and she's illegal."
Over 30 years ago, that quote still etched deep in my brain.
The point: diets, even the new updated diets with all their new (and often, tasty) convenience foods, are premised on deprivation.
And, now, here were two authors, people I have never met, telling me to develop my own list of of favorite foods, and, then, actually, offering me suggestions on how I could develop a life-long eating program that could be sustainable.
It was an important moment.
For this blog, the specifics of my personal list are unimportant, but, I must admit, I had difficulty narrowing it down to just 10 items. I'm somewhat picky, but I do like to eat, and lots of goodies kept trying to bump themselves up.
Still, when all was said and done, I wrote up my list.
I hadn't listed all junk food; some surprising healthy foods had bumped their way onto my list, such as sunflower seeds.
Last summer, I made an interesting discovery about sunflower seeds. Although I was still overeating, I noticed that just a small helping of sunflower seeds satisfied me, and I enjoyed them. Now they are a regular part of my diet, almost a daily treat, though I'm going to branch out and try substituting some almonds once in a while.
The important point here: these are my choices, not someone else's.
For me, that has made all the difference.
That is my epiphany.
Jennifer Semple Siegel
That's okay, though. I'm a writer and teacher, so it's only natural that my writing life would spill over into the personal; I can't sustain the issues of weight and relationship to food 24/7. So, readers, expect tangents like this. This blog is a work-in-progress.
In my quest to come up with interesting prompts for my creative writing students, I may have stumbled upon a new poetic form. I hesitate to call it an original idea because I'm fairly certain it's one of those ideas that people just naturally pick up on because my discovery is an offshoot of the sestina, an existing poetic form. "Septina" is definitely not an original name; on Google, septina, as a poetic form, is mentioned at least 60 times, but writers tend to talk about the problem of developing the form past that first seven-line stanza, or they develop it in a different way, not at all like a sestina. One person wanted to write a Septina but couldn't figure out how to configure the problematic last stanza.
The poet Marilyn Hacker wrote "Morning News," her version of a Septina, posted on the Forward website:
But her excellent Septina consists of eight, seven-line stanzas with an end-word scheme unlike mine. Still, from what I can gather, Ms. Hacker is probably the first person to write a poem in this form, so she's probably the "inventor." But who knows? Maybe the Septina, in some form or another, has been passed around in the classroom and in writing circles. If not, it will; I plan to release it in a few days at the NCTE Exercise Exchange. Why not? It's a fascinating form, based on multiples of seven, supposedly the most perfect prime number. A good poet could write a stunning Septina, and I'd love to see some published, though modern journals tend to shy away from form poetry. For an interesting thread on the state of form poetry, click
Anyway, here's my version of the form, offered as a prompt for anyone wanting to tackle a Septina:
Write a "Septina," a 54-line poem consisting of seven, seven-line stanzas, and an ending quintet (five lines). The end-word scheme might be arranged as follows:
Stanza 1: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7
Stanza 2: 7,6,1,5,2,4,3
Stanza 3: 3,7,6,4,1,2,5
Stanza 4: 5,3,2,6,7,1,4
Stanza 5: 4,5,1,3,6,7,2
Stanza 6: 2,4,7,5,3,1,6
Stanza 7: 6,7,2,3,4,5,1
Stanza 8: (1,2,[3-4-5],6,7)
(Five lines, three end words in line 52, or line three in the
As the creator (?) of this particular configuration, I have not written a Septina--it looks a little intimidating. I have written a few sestinas, but they took a long time, and I'm still not all that happy with them.
I'd love to hear your thoughts, especially if you write a Septina.
Is anyone out there?
Jennifer Semple Siegel
Saturday, November 12, 2005
I'm definitely not perfect--I'm still a hara hachi bu person in training. I enjoyed last night's meal immensely, some favorite foods served, but I did leave food on my plate. For me, that's major, though I ultimately consumed 1,700-1,800 calories for the day--maybe more. I did notice something interesting: I was not hungry today until lunchtime, though I had awakened at 8:00 a.m. So my body seems to be learning the signs of hunger/overeating.
I ate very moderately at lunch, perhaps about one-half of my food, one-third of my dessert.
For me, that's progress.
I suspect that most normal weight people don't even think about consciously leaving food behind, but I'm not normal in the way I relate to food, and, so, I must make a conscious decision to stop eating--that's the reality, and I can't deny that flaw in my psychological makeup.
I realized that I was probably full, and, yes, 20-30 minutes later, I was content and full.
Interesting observation, though: I had to talk myself out of feeling guilt for eating "forbidden" food--another lesson to be learned--that no food is truly forbidden, just to be taken in moderation. Thin people don't obsess over these matters.
Crucial elements of my training:
--Eat what I like.
--Eat in moderation.
--Stop eating when I'm 80% full, but don't beat myself up when I "slip." Even thin people slip sometimes, and they think nothing of it.
Why should I?
Friday, November 11, 2005
Jerry and I connect on so many levels, weight being an issue for both of us. He, too, was a fat child--actually, at one point, an obese child. He's thin now, has been for years because of his heart; at 41, he had a massive heart attack, came very close to dying and decided to lose and keep the weight off. That was nearly 23 years ago.
But even he put on some weight in Macedonia--he says about 15 pounds. In his case, the weight slid off immediately, and he's back to pre-Macedonia weight.
People are often fooled by his exterior--he insists he's a fat man in a slim body. His mind-set = fat, and food = issues. I often say that he talks his food to death. Hell, he engages in entire conversations with his meals, asking questions, etc.
He seems to like what I'm trying to do to change my own mind-set, though he accepts me, thick or thin.
This is our first major trip away since early August, putting my resolve to the acid test. It's one thing to incorporate hara hachi bu when portions are weighed and labeled, but quite another when a humongous plate of food is shoved in front of you, prepared God-knows-how.
Here's how I view this: eating out is a reality, particularly in our lives. We attend at least four conferences a year, all of them involving major banquets. So part of the process involves dealing with food situations where external control is limited.
I refuse to live my life in a bubble, but I can still remember the concept of hara hachi bu, though caloric intake may be slightly increased, but that's not necessarily a bad thing--I've heard that a temporary increase in calories can actually boost metabolism.
Last night, we arrived in Baltimore, both of us hungry. I hadn't eaten my sunflower seeds (to be explained in another entry), because I wasn't sure what I would find.
Fortunately, the hotel has a grill, but, like most American restaurants, they serve large portions. Jerry and I decided to share a flounder, stuffed with crab, dish and rice pilaf. I ordered a side salad, no dressing. No big deal--I don't even eat dressing anyway, so it's not even a deprivation issue.
Yes, I experienced hara hachi bu, leaving the restaurant slightly hungry. Most Americans aren't used to this feeling, and, I must admit, it feels a bit scary.
But I depended on my eye to tell me that the full portion was too large for one person.
Last night was a small victory in a long, life-time marathon.
Until next time.
Jennifer Semple Siegel
Thursday, November 10, 2005
I'm not going to continue with my epiphany this time, because I have made another important discovery, which, in fact, is directly related to my own self-discovery.
On November 9, on the way home from work, I heard an NPR interview in which host Michele Norris interviewed Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio, the authors of Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.
The authors, a married couple, traveled all over the world to see what 30 families from 24 different countries eat in a week's time.
Later, I'm going to flip over to Amazon and order the book because it sounds like a remarkable study, directly related to the issues of this blog. Menzel and D'Aluisio lived with each family for a week, shopped with them, and ate with them. The authors took pictures of the people, along with the food they consumed in a week's time. The few pictures on the NPR website are remarkable in that they show, in sharp contrast, the poverty of the third world and the wealth of the west.
No surprise: the American family profiled ate what you might expect: junk and prepared foods and lots of it. I'm not judging this family--in many ways I AM that family; otherwise, this blog and my epiphany would be irrelevant. But when Ron and Rosemary Revis of North Carolina, saw their week's worth of food laid out before them, they were shocked, so much so that they have incorporated a healthier eating regimen into their lives, along with regular exercise.
In Macedonia, my friend Ljiljiana Ordev, who lived in the U.S. during 2003, told me she was astounded at the large portions Americans ate, particularly in restaurants. We have grown accustomed to the super-sized meal, the Biggie Fries and the Big Gulp, the bigger the better. We hear all the time that Americans are getting fatter; when I was a child, childhood obesity was rare. Kids were skinny and knobby-kneed. But, now, I see obese kids all the time, and it breaks my heart because I know first-hand how other kids will and do treat them.
According to Menzel, we can learn some important information from these families, especially the one from Okinawa. In America, picky kids are told to clean their plates. After all, there are starving children in Africa, and, therefore, it is our responsibility to see that starvation doesn't happen here. I never did get the connection; I would have only been too happy to send my lima beans to these poor children--just give me the address.
But in Okinawa, children are taught to stop eating when they are 80% full--in their language: Hara hachi bu.
What a beautiful, simple concept. I have always known that normal satiety doesn't kick in until 20-30 minutes after a meal; even my alarmed grandmother told me this back in the late 50's and throughout the 1960's, but this concept was applied only to me: my skinny cousins were praised gloriously when they chowed down--a healthy, robust appetite was viewed as a sign of good health and wealth, provided you were "normal weight."
But the idea that an entire culture could embrace Hara hachi bu for everyone astounds me and offers hope, I think, for our culture as well. Why limit this concept to just the overweight? Why not encourage every American to stop eating when they are 80% full? Why single out the overweight?
Hara hachi bu suggests that overeating should be taboo for everyone feeding at the trough, not just the 200-300 pound woman or man at Old Country Buffet--that if we are going to judge people for what they eat, then we should do so in a non-discriminatory manner.
The 80%-full concept does fit in very well with my epiphany, for this is what I must do in my own life: accept and even embrace the idea of slight hunger--for the rest of my life.
Hara hachi bu will forever be a part of my vocabulary.
That's why I can never go on a diet, ever again.
Jennifer Semple Siegel
Question: I would like to hear from normal weight people who have never dieted in a significant way (other than to shed a few pounds gained during holidays and on vacation). How do you relate to food? Do you incorporate the concept of Hara hachi bu in your daily life? Please, on my blog, don't berate overweight people and insist that they are responsible for their weight--this may or may not be true. I'm more interested in finding out how you keep your weight in a normal range and how the 80%-full concept fits (or doesn't fit) into your life.
Monday, November 07, 2005
That's right. No more diets. Ever.
Instead, as of August 28, 2005, I was starting another journey: making a major change in the way I approach food and how I choose to eat.
Let's back track. Back in the early nineties, I bought into the then-popular "Eat-what-you-want-and-your-body-will-tell-you-when-you're-hungry" program. I even wrote a short essay titled "Are You Thin Yet?" published in Eating Our Hearts Out: Personal Accounts of Women's Relationship with Food (1993), edited by Leslea Newman. At the time, it was a heartfelt essay, written with good intentions, but I kept waiting for my body to kick in that appestat control.
It never did. I felt like some kind of freak whose "natural" appetite was cranked into overdrive. And despite my very public promise to never fall into the diet trap, I did--several times, the last major diet in 1999; I lost about 80 pounds, but with the help of phentermine, and despite the diet pill, I was still always hungry--I'm one of those people who tend to experience the "opposite" effects from medication. Still, I more or less kept the weight off for about two years, probably the longest time I have ever sustained a weight loss. But, over time, the pounds crept upward, and by 2003 I was pretty much back to where I started in 1999. Since 2003, I have had several mini-diet starts, the longest lasting three months.
Back to August 28. The night before, I had been on this diet for about three weeks, and I caved, bingeing on ballpark potato chips and a health bar, some chocolate peanut butter glob that tasted like a sugared super vitamin.
I had sunk to an all-time low. It wasn't even creative: just a cheap binge--I had sold out my diet for a tasteless handful of greasy chips and an oblong of artificially manufactured block of protein that buffos use in place of an entire meal. I could have at least done the dirty deed right by glomming down on a Dairy Queen Caramel Moolatte (extra whipped cream--why the hell not?).
The next morning, I vowed to pick myself up, and start from square one.
Then, the little voice: "I can't do this anymore."
The tight-jawed determination. The promises. The wavering. The fall. The self disgust. The vicious cycle redux.
Still, I dragged out all the diet books, some of them over 30 years old--at 55, I've been doing this diet thing a long time.
I'm a professional dieter. I have weights and measures memorized, and I can look at a hunk of meat and guess accurately its weight and calorie count. I know good and bad proteins, carbs, sugars. I can calculate glycemic quotients.
I just can't keep off extra weight.
I look at thin people and wonder how they sustain their normal weights. I want to know their secrets, not just the cliched input/output model. I already know that. I want to know how they relegate food to the realm of ordinary, how they don't obsess about Moolattes and homemade mashed potatoes drowning in butter. Even babies know when to stop eating--I'm being bested by beings who still mess their pants and throw their nummies on the floor. Future fatties are not usually born that way--they learn it somehow, just like I had.
I remember my first binge: I was 7 and gorged on three glazed doughnuts. Then my grandparents took me for a ride on the L.A. freeway. In the middle of summer. In the days before ordinary people had car airconditioning. Bumper-to-bumper traffic.
I hurled, shooting doughnut chunks right into the next car...
Well, all I can say: I lived to tell about it.
I went on my first diet when I was 8, my main meal of the day involving all the lettuce I wanted, sprinkled with sugar. By 9, I was on a pink diet pill and a gray thyroid pill that I chewed because I was so hungry all the time, and it tasted like a morsel of food. Then my doctor prescribed a downer because the diet pill wired me, and I couldn't sleep, which meant I couldn't get up for school.
For some inexplicable reason, I never became an addicted abuser of pills, alcohol, or illegal drugs, though it wasn't for lack of trying. I thoroughly enjoyed the illicit fruits of the 1960's.
My fatal flaw and downfall has always been an unhealthy relationship with food.
Food isn't a substance one can stop cold turkey. That's known as anorexia, and I have flirted with that, too, but not in recent years. I'm nipping at the heels of senior citizenship, and to totally stop eating now would certainly hasten my trek into the hereafter--not quite there yet. But when I was in high school, I often fasted for three days at a time, cultivating that gaunt face that teenagers seem to like. I drew pictures of sickly-looking girls with long pale hair, ghostly glowing skin, black smudged eyeliner framing liquid blue eyes, and pink--almost white--lips.
No longer an option.
So here's my epiphany: I can't get rid of my substance of choice; I can't stub out that last bread crust, toss out my stash of hamburger, and vow to NEVER take a bite of food, as long as I live.
Every day, I will wake up and, first thing, inhale my coffee. Sooner or later, I will feel that first pang that will send me on the hunt for sustenance. Feed the kitty.
Denying the kitty its feed = stoking the monster's wrath.
Dieting = stoking the up appestat.
Denying the body what it needs and wants = failure.
I've always known this, of course, but my knowledge was abstract and superficial. I didn't really know, at least not deep in my gut. During the nineties, I made a stab at this reality, but I misinterpreted it as license to eat whatever I wanted, without guilt, and that this mythical appetite control would kick in and, kum-ba-ya, hello, road to thinness.
This approach may have worked for some people, but not for me. I just kept eating, a juggernaut eating machine, devouring whatever nuggets lay in my path.
And as I yo-yoed up and down, the nineties morphed into the oughts.
2005. Right on my book shelf, I found an 11-year-old paperback with a 1990 Pennsylvania Super 7 lottery ticket tucked between pages 138 and 139. Pennsylvania used to print out such colorful tickets, with pictures of interesting state landmarks--this one depicts Pittsburgh and its three rivers. I can't claim it's a winning ticket--otherwise, I'd have a few cool million in the bank, and the ticket would be framed in gesso and hanging on my wall, instead of stashed in a yellowed paperback, but if you're superstitious and believe in fate, the numbers are 1, 15, 31, 41, 50, 64, 70. Date of ticket: January 17, 1990. Maybe those numbers have meaning, too. You figure it out.
Numbers have always gotten me into trouble: number of calories, number of ounces, numbers on the scale, number of inches around my waist and hips--count this, count that...
The lottery ticket itself isn't so important, but where I found it is. On page 139, the author instructs the reader to list 10 favorite foods.
That I might be able to acknowledge my 10 favorite foods--without guilt--may turn out to be one of the most important revelations of my life.
Next time: the meaning of the list.
Jennifer Semple Siegel
Friday, November 04, 2005
HELLO! e-Fatlady would love to hear your anecdotes (the good, bad, funny, and ugly) about navigating, as a fat person, your way through a thin world.
If you are a thin person living with a fat person, how does that affect your day-to-day life?
I posted the above over a year ago, on July 7, 2004, at 11:27 p.m.; I was in a different place back then, and wished to be anonymous. I no longer feel that way. I'm not going to post anything I wouldn't want my family and friends to see; as a result, I have changed my profile to reflect my openness. I have no desire to hide in cyberspace.
As I enter into late middle age, I have embarked on a new journey, which began on August 4, 2005--only I didn't realize it at the time.
I thought I was beginning "another diet." I had just returned from a year's stay in Skopje, Macedonia, where the food tends to be fatty, both good (olive oil) and bad (animal) fat. I, of course, gained weight, about 15 pounds, maybe more. Macedonia, a developing country, has many of the same conveniences that we do, except not as much variety. Diet foods are almost unheard of, so if one wants to cook low fat, we're talking about "from scratch." No Chef Lean Cuisine or Healthy Choice, though Coke Light and artificial sweetners (in liquid--probably the same cyclamates banned years ago in the U.S.--and pill form) are readily available. Like the good perennial dieter, I
used these products, even as I stuffed myself on pizza, fries, and Big Macs--yes, there are at least three McDonald's franchises in Skopje alone.
I didn't bother to cook much; I hate to cook. I remain fundamentally opposed to spending two hours preparing a meal that takes 10-15 minutes to consume. So my husband Jerry and I ate out a lot--very inexpensive in Skopje, about $7.00-$8.00 at the local pizzeria for both of us, including shots of Mastika (licorice-flavored white lightning) or Rakjia (yellow or white lightning). Even my skinny husband piled on a few pounds, which he has quickly shed. Men!
(July 5, 2005: Jerry and I enjoy a farewell-to-Macedonia dinner at "511," a local pizzeria)
During my time in Macedonia, I didn't realize the significance of this following observation: that despite their high fat diet, Macedonians tend to be thin. Obesity is rare. Morbid obesity is unheard of--on the street, I saw one Macedonian who might be considered obese, and that was a stretch.
I must admit, I sometimes felt a little out of place, but I still enjoyed my time there, writing, visiting friends, shopping, walking, traveling (Rome and Athens!), and going out. Surprisingly, I experienced very little blatant discrimination against me because of my size--I can probably count on one hand the times I felt belittled because of the way I look. Most of my self-consciousness was self generated.
Fat prejudice is much worse in the U.S.; even as our culture gets fatter, discrimination against the overweight is heaped higher, evidenced by insensitive talk show hosts and a domestic airline that will remain unnamed. But that's another issue to be explored in another entry.
The truth is, weight regulation is a complex biological process that goes beyond the simplistic input/output formula touted by some righteous thin people for whom weight regulation and appetite control are unconscious processes. Even scientists and researchers are baffled why some people hang onto weight, while others slough it off effortlessly, as evidenced by a lack of diet aids that (1) truly work, (2) are safe, (3) don't involve risky major surgery.
My difficulty has always been appetite control. When I was 10, my grandmother told me, "You eat like a man." She was right; I could eat any teenage boy under the table. Set me loose at a buffet, and I'd go back to the groaning table three or four times. I just couldn't fill up--not until I was so stuffed that my stomach hurt.
Even so, as a kid, I was only slightly overweight. To this day, I'm convinced that if my grandparents (who raised me) had left me alone and not stuck me on myriad diets, my appetite and weight might have evened out, though I'll never know for sure. But I'm finished playing the blame game. My family did what they felt was best for me--
I'm moving on.
So why are most Macedonians thin? I have arrived at some conclusions:
- Less variety at the grocery store and market. Go to any U.S. supermarket, and you will often find hundreds of choices for one kind of item. Macedonian markets tend to offer two or three choices--get over it.
- Very little food advertising on TV and billboards. Restaurant ads tend to focus on the facility and less on the food itself. Conversely, take a good look at U.S. food ads--close up shots of super-sized hamburgers, dripping with grease and melting cheese, and deep fried chicken fingers.
- Meals are special events, not just food-on-the-run. At least once a day, families eat together--and it's not a hurried process; diners take their time.
- Macedonian portions are smaller; the "doggie bag" is just beginning to seep into the Macedonian psyche and only because the increasing American presence started it. (Guilty!) So the high fat diet is probably turns out to be lower in calories.
- Macedonians eat their main meal of the day around 2:00 p.m. Supper consists of "Mezes," a light spread typically eaten at the coffee table, garnished with plenty of conversation and a shot of rakjia or goblet of wine. Sometimes both.
- Macedonians tend not to snack between meals. Even food grabbed on the run, such as roasted chestnuts sold on the streets, is considered a meal. To me, they were a snack.
- Macedonians tend to walk more. It's not unusual to weave one's way downtown through a crowd--center city Skopje always seems to be hopping with activity: festivals, craft shows, concerts, even fireworks.
- Macedonians smoke a lot; obviously, this isn't a recommended weight-control aid, but, often, when people hang out at cafes and bars, they are drinking coffee or rakija and smoking, not eating fast food.
- One aspect that can't be ignored: poverty. Certainly poverty does play a major role in the physical makeup of the Macedonian population; for example, many of the Roma population are extremely thin because of want, not because they are counting calories.
- Dieting is not yet a national obsession; the weight-loss industry, such as it is, is still in its infancy. A friend, not overweight, was going to a diet doctor for some kind of (yikes!) injections for weight control.
Number 10 demonstrates that, over time, Macedonia and other former communist countries will pick up many of our bad food and dieting habits, but in 2004 and 2005, they still relate to food in a fairly healthy manner.
So why didn't I come home thinner instead of fatter?
The simple answer: Jerry and I brought our American culture with us. While we tried, in public, to "blend" in, at home we retained our old habits. We ate our main meal at six or seven, and I didn't change any of my eating habits--I even developed a few other bad habits, such as developing a taste for cappuccinos with whipped cream, and not as a substitute for meals. The food in restaurants was tasty and fatty, and we ate out a lot.
A different story in 1988-89, another year in Macedonia--then part of Yugoslavia--and I did return home 15 pounds lighter. But it was a different place then, food choices at the market limited to what was in season, sometimes the shelves bare--and Tito's ghost still very evident. No internet, no computer, no CNN: we were truly isolated back then. Five Americans lived in Skopje, we making up 40% of the American population. We truly lived on the Yugoslav economy, which means that, in the cold winter months, we ate a lot dishes made from dried beans, pasta, cabbage, leeks, tomato paste, tuna, and rice--it's really difficult to gain weight on such fare. Junk food was rare, and what existed tasted terrible, at least to the spoiled Western palate. Going out was inexpensive, but pizzerias were rare and not that that great. The main restaurant staple was steak, and you had to ask the server "to hold the fried egg on top." I'm not a big steak fan. They didn't even serve cappuccino back then--just Turkish coffee, which consists of a brew boiled directly in coffee grounds, an acquired taste. It was just easier not to eat as much.
Back to August 4. I had been back in the states about a month, just returned from a two-week trip to Sioux City, Iowa, to visit family. I felt depressed, uncomfortable, and bloated, having indulged even beyond the previous 10 months. Pigged out. So I went on a diet, the same old song of my life, got out all the dusty diet books and began reading about the ways I'd need deprive myself for the next six or seven months.
Ho-hum. For about three weeks, I stuck to my plan. But then the cravings came, and on August 27, I caved, and binged. It wasn't an all-out binge, but, in my mind, it was a failure, close to a moral lapse.
I would have to start over.
Then something amazing happened, an epiphany.
Until next post...
My question: In the long run, do diets really work? I would like to hear some success and horror stories.
My original invitation still stands; you are still welcome to post your stories.
Jennifer Semple Siegel